For thousands of years, seafood has sustained communities, livelihoods, and economies across the world. In ancient Rome, wealthy entrepreneurs snapped up beachfront property and built elaborate fish farms. In 15th-century Chile, coastal people bartered shellfish for inland resources. The Vikings living on Norway’s Lofoten Islands were fierce and powerful raiders, but they were also prodigious fishers of Atlantic cod. Over millennia, shifts in politics and changing technology have drastically altered when and where people go to fish. But accurate scientific records of this vast history of fishing activity capture, at best, a tiny sliver of the whole.
Most scientific studies of global fishing patterns only extend back to the 1950s, when groups such as the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization began keeping detailed records. Today, these mid-century records are used as the baseline against which modern fisheries data is compared when making decisions about fisheries management and marine conservation. But Reg Watson, a fisheries ecologist at the University of Tasmania, was unsatisfied with this truncated view of history.
In a new research effort, Watson and his colleague Alex Tidd, a fisheries scientist at the Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology in Ireland, scoured online databases, regional management records, vessel-tracking satellites, and historical records dating back to 1869 to produce the first comprehensive maps of global marine fishing over the past 150 years. The study doesn’t account for the full history of fishing, of course, but it does reveal detailed patterns of fishing across countries, including differences in catch composition and fishing gear, for a much bigger period of history than previous records. Watson and Tidd’s reconstructed records also estimated the rates of illegal, unreported, and discarded catch.
Watson says examining fishing trends over such a long period offers a glimpse of how fishing has changed marine biodiversity. Looking back in time gives researchers a clearer idea of historical fish populations before they were heavily exploited by modern industrial fishing. This information can be used to assess the sustainability of modern fishing activity.
“It’s like playing a detective game,” says Watson. “There’s a lot you can do with these maps, from figuring out greenhouse gas emissions produced by fleets to seeing how fishing impacts wildlife.”